Monday, July 10, 2017

Earth Music

By Alexander Rehding and Daniel KL Chua

Carl Sagan proudly exhibits the Golden Record.
Exactly forty years ago, in 1977, the two spacecraft of the Voyager mission left Planet Earth to start their trajectories into the unknown. Among the objects launched into outer space was the famous Golden Record, a specially pressed LP containing several hours of music collected from various traditions of the world from Chinese guqin music to Louis Armstrong, greetings in more than fifty languages, a range of environmental noises, such as volcanoes rumbling and waves crashing, as well as carefully encoded non-verbal instructions on how to play the record that, one hopes, extraterrestrials will be able to follow.

Currently Voyager 2 is somewhere near the edges of the solar magnetic field whereas Voyager 1 has left the solar system for galaxies far, far away. In its uncertain fate, the Golden Record has been referred to as a “message in a bottle.” Even calling it that is wildly optimistic: its conception makes several leaps of faith—above all, that extraterrestrials have auditory perception. Carl Sagan, who chaired the committee in charge of this project, and his team were apparently aware of the symbolic nature of the Golden Record, when they etched in English—in breach of the guideline not to rely on written texts—“To the makers of music, all worlds, all times” onto the center of the record.

The Golden Record presents a canon of world music. To be sure, it’s a reified canon, and far from a perfect one, reflecting the context of its inception (and Sagan’s favorites). Especially the inclusion of music popular in the American charts in the mid-70s has been the butt of jokes. (Steve Martin quipped that a message from outer space would be decoded as “Send more Chuck Berry!”) Nonetheless, it is an honest attempt to represent a diverse sampling of musical cultures from across the world. What is more, when the earth will inevitably be destroyed, hit by an asteroid or swallowed by the expanding sun, the Golden Record will likely still continue its journey into the unknown. As Evander Price points out, this piece of space trash is destined to be the longest-lasting testimony of human culture on earth—a future monument.

The Golden Record presents some exciting challenges for music scholars, which impels us to boldly go where no musicologist has gone before. What would extraterrestrials (with ears) make of the Golden Record? How would they approach the music devoid of any cultural background? What does a non-human music theory look like?

Imagine, if you will, a scenario in which extraterrestrials find the Golden Record and try to make sense of the music they perceive. Stefan Helmreich has offered some useful pointers. There is no historical or cultural context; the only information available is the recording itself. In this thought experiment we cannot take much for granted: no historical frameworks, no generic expectations, no scores or notation. We can’t even rely on sound – at least, not as we know it – since the music has been delivered by NASA as an object, a thing, a kind of dis-located frequency machine. The golden testament to humanity is strangely (and one day will literally be) post-human. The challenge of such an alien musicology is to grapple with this radical estrangement. Any context, any analytical methodology needs to be built from scratch. As soon as we break through the confines of our planet’s atmosphere, the culturally differentiated parameters of world music turn into an a-contextual “Earth Music.” A Pygmy girl’s initiation song from Zaire will be presented in exactly the same way as the Cavatina from Beethoven’s op. 130 and Javanese court gamelan—everything becomes absolute music, writ large.

What remains are mere vibrations. By sending a frequency machine, NASA has inadvertently divined the one constant that would connect our music across galaxies: frequency. Everything in time vibrates, from the looping membranes of quantum string theory to the massive shudder of gravitational waves; the universe repeats itself endlessly which is why music—the quintessential art of repetition—is embedded in the space-time fabric that ripples out from the Big Bang. In one sense, this returns music to the first “string theory” of the universe formulated by Pythagoras some 2500 years ago. Although this was a timeless cosmology of harmonic ratios that is no longer in tune with a universe ordered by the laws of general relativity and quantum mechanics, there is still something about this ancient theory that resonates with the ear-opening vision of the Voyager project. Such intergalactic projects puncture the constricted world of musicology with a potential to venture beyond our current epistemological horizons and embrace … possibly everything! Of course, the idea is not to conflate music and the cosmos into some reductive totality that we can master. In fact, quite the opposite.

The surface of the Golden Record.
We—that is, earth-dwelling musicologists—would do well to remember that the limitations of human hearing, located between 20Hz and 20kHz, are somewhat arbitrary, a function of our anatomical makeup. We don’t know anything about alien physiology but, following the advice of philosopher of mind Peter Godfrey Smith a propos of the radically different organization of octopus brains, we do well to start by examining alternative perceptual models found here on planet earth. The auditory apparatus of other species on earth provide us with great variety that serves as a starting point: famously, bats’ ears reach into the range of 100kHz and beyond; and non-human primates may not have tonotopic maps to process sounds, which raises the possibility that their hearing does not fuse complex waveforms into unified pitches, like humans do. We need not stop here. Following a thought experiment by nineteenth-century entomologist Karl Ernst von Baer, we could speculate that the human rate of perceptions per second might not be universal. It is imaginable that non-human audition “hears” the same vibrations much lower or much higher than humans, depending on their rate of perception. Edda Moser’s flexible gorge as Queen of the Night might come across like a basso profundo in outer space. All these inferences on the basis of existing science are, of course, entirely speculative—we don’t know how, if at all, they relate to extra-terrestrial hearing. But if we follow SETI’s hope that there will be some creatures in space capable of hearing, somehow, then the Golden Record is as good a starting point as any. (Some researchers have cast doubt on the entire project by pointing out that we don’t even manage to communicate with other intelligent species on earth, such as dolphins. But as others counter, humanity has only had the capability of communicating into space for the last fifty years or so, which is merely a speck on the timeline, so the jury is still out.) Whatever else this speculation does, it cleans out our ears for the diverse possibilities of “creaturely” kinds of hearing.

What would a closer kind of listening look like? Even though the possibilities of hearing seem virtually endless, the mechanisms of analyzing music in outer space are relatively limited, at least to begin with. As NASA astrophysicists point out, the most likely means of communication will be based on mathematics, as the fundamental laws of physics must apply even in outer space. Any closer consideration of the music will start, by necessity, with very basic concepts: sameness and difference, repetition and contrast or, using more mathematical terms, = and ≠. It seems that the tools of classic Saussurian structuralism will serve to build up a rudimentary analytical language that will allow us to compare and contrasts the vibrations emanating from the Golden Record. Given that the only context we have is created by the canon presented on the record, the connections drawn will be radically cross-cultural—though, of course, this category becomes meaningless in this context. In outer space, Japanese shakuhachi music may reveal a surreptitious kinship to Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto, and Azerbaijani mugam to Blind Willy Johnson.

This is not to suggest that all Earth Music sounds the same, but rather that from a sufficiently remote perspective new kinds of similarities and differences may arise. (The growing analytical literature on world music is of central importance here.) Whether this Earth Music constitutes a flattening of musical features or a liberation is a matter of perspective. Either way, thinking through the Golden Record challenges us to refashion what we, as musicologists, do. Ultimately, the chief point of this interstellar exploration is firmly focused on the question of communication, starting with our communication here on Planet Earth. This musical anniversary affords us a great opportunity to raise some important questions about the reach of musicology. It asks us to consider our work in its capacity to communicate across the barriers of languages, cultures—indeed across whole worlds and planets—and to examine the very basis and purpose of our work. If we set the most ambitious goals, communicating across species, across exoplanetary systems, and renegotiate the very foundational terms with which we operate, perhaps the rest of our work will seem less daunting as a consequence. Space, it turns out, really is the final frontier.

Voyager 2, in a galaxy far, far away.
Alexander Rehding is Fanny Peabody Professor of Music at Harvard University. He holds a PhD from Cambridge University. Rehding’s work ranges from ancient Egyptian music to the Eurovision song contest. His books include Hugo Riemann and the Birth of Modern Musical Thought (2003), Music and Monumentality (2009), and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (November 2017). A former editor of Acta Musicologica and convener of the John E. Sawyer Seminar in the Comparative Study of Culture on the topic of “Hearing Modernity” (2013-14), he is now Editor-in-chief of the Oxford Handbooks Music Online series. His awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Dent Medal of the Royal Musical Association.

Daniel KL Chua earned his PhD in musicology from Cambridge University and is currently professor of music at the University of Hong Kong. Before joining Hong Kong University to head the School of Humanities, he was a fellow and the Director of Studies at St John’s College, Cambridge, and later Professor of Music Theory and Analysis at King’s College London. He was a Visiting Senior Research fellow at Yale (2014-15), a Henry Fellow at Harvard (1992-3), and a Research Fellow at Cambridge (1993-7). He is the recipient of the 2004 Royal Musical Association’s Dent Medal. He is the President of the International Musicological Society (2017-2022). He has written widely on music, from Monteverdi to Stravinsky; his publications include The ‘Galitzin’ Quartets of Beethoven (Princeton, 1994), Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning (Cambridge, 1999), and Beethoven and Freedom (Oxford, 2017).


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  2. Although Voyager 1 has left the solar system, I doubt it is headed "for galaxies far, far away." More likely it will eventually be captured by the gravity a relatively close star system in our own galaxy, and find some orbit there. But that is a trivial criticism of this interesting article on the fate of NASA's Golden Record.

    The authors assert that the Golden Record provokes "important questions about the reach of musicology. It asks us to consider our work in its capacity to communicate across the barriers of languages, cultures—indeed across whole worlds and planets—and to examine the very basis and purpose of our work. If we set the most ambitious goals, communicating across species, across exoplanetary systems, and renegotiate the very foundational terms with which we operate, perhaps the rest of our work will seem less daunting as a consequence."

    My response is that although that is an interesting reflection, it will likely appeal mostly to professional academics and corporatist billionaires and their politicians, who seem comfortable and even enthusiastic about moving the world towards a global culture, which has all kinds of implications for governance and economics being taken far beyond the scales that can be rooted in community or any functional democratic institutions. No doubt there are issues (such as environmental and humanitarian crises) that require international cooperation, but the well-intentioned "we are the world" liberal-globalist mindset also functions to undermine local communities and local control, local and national traditions and identities that give meaning to the lives of the vast majority of ordinary people who do not benefit from the corporate globalization and global governance that are ideologically supported by the cultural left's globalist mentality that sees national identity and western tradition as myopic and old-fashioned.

    Is music a universal language? Can it convey emotional and spiritual messages across differences of language and culture? No doubt it can, and does for those who are secure enough in their economic and social position to embrace globalization. But again, for most ordinary people who find their employment and economic security eroding as industries and governance are moved offshore and to increasingly remote and insulated elite institutions, we prefer to fiddle while Rome burns, meaning we take comfort in the music that is familiar to us and makes reference to our history and traditions and gives us a sense of stable community, which must have local roots.

  3. It was a very good post indeed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it in my lunch time. Will surely come and visit this blog more often. Thanks for sharing. Musically 2018